The Cleveland Cavaliers (7-24) saw their budding young backcourt, the No. 1 scoring guard tandem in the NBA, fuel the Wine and Gold in a back-and-forth battle with the Atlanta Hawks (18-9). Unfortunately, inexperience and poor shot selection late in the game from Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters ultimately cost the Cavs the game. Cleveland entered the final quarter of play shooting 40-percent from long range, but only converted on two of their final six three-point attempts to close out the game.
Coming out of a timeout with 2:15 remaining in the contest, Irving pulled up from 31 feet out and missed the go-ahead shot early on in the ensuing possession. A well-covered attempt resulted in a miss from Irving, who finished 57.1 percent from three. That low-percentage shot gave the Hawks the opportunity to rush down the court and feed the ball to big man Al Horford for the 19-foot jumper to put Atlanta at a 97-94 advantage.
Cleveland needed a make on their next trip down the floor, but instead Dion Waiters put up a long, and nicely defended, two pointer that rimmed out. After a foul, the Cavaliers failed to get back on defense, allowing a wide-open Kyle Korver to convert from three. The dagger was finally nailed in, as the Cavs went down six with 1:21 to go in their final home game of 2012. Atlanta ended up with a win in a hard-fought battle, 102-94.
It would be wrong to say that Irving and Waiters alone helped to put another loss in the Cavaliers’ record because they were only in the game due to their explosive and consistent performances on offense. Despite a rough start on defense, highlighted by the quickness of Atlanta point guard Jeff Teague, head coach Byron Scott signaled for a timeout to gather his troops. Something must have been sorted out, as Cleveland went on an 11-2 run that ended with an emphatic Dion Waiters’ dunk off of an Irving steal and dish.
The backcourt was doing their job, as they combined for 16 of Cleveland’s 26 first quarter points, but defense was the main issue. Teague blazed past Irving for nine quick points, while Horford added six against a dazed Tyler Zeller.
The second period began almost identical to the first 12 minutes, but it was the Hawk bench, led by Anthony Tolliver, that outworked a Cavalier unit that consisted of C.J. Miles, Daniel Gibson and Jeremy Pargo. Atlanta ultimately outscored Cleveland’s reserves 27-18, with Tolliver leading the way with 13 points and four rebounds. The long-range arsenal from Atlanta and Zeller’s lack of energy were killing the Cavs, but Waiters and Irving would come in to bring the Wine and Gold back to life with just under four minutes to go in the first half.
The high-octane duo accounted for 13 of Cleveland’s final 15 points of the second quarter after being down 50-39. However, what quite possibly was one of the greatest shots of the year from Kyrie brought the game to within one as time ran out. His 40-foot running/floating buzzer-beater energized the crowd going into halftime, even though Cleveland still trailed 55-54. Irving and Waiters had 31 of those points as well.
Once the third quarter came, fans at Quicken Loans Arena saw the Cavaliers at their best. Despite Hawks power forward Josh Smith constantly sending shots back (he finished the game with five blocks), Irving’s ability to create shots and Alonzo Gee’s aggressiveness in the lane allowed the Cavs to take a five-point lead going into the fourth quarter. He had six of his 28 points in the third frame, while Gee converted on all four of his free throw attempts in that same period. Jeff Teague’s career night was just too much to overcome, however.
The starting point guard for the Hawks finished with 27 points and eight assists, compiling four points, two assists and two rebounds in the opening four minutes of the fourth quarter. Even though Irving and Waiters finished with a collective 46 points, 12 rebounds, nine assists and seven steals, their decision making with the game on the line doomed the Cavaliers.
Cleveland will again be without center Anderson Varejao on Saturday when the Cavaliers travel to Barclays Center to take on the Brooklyn Nets. Kyrie seems to love playing in the New York region, so hopefully Mr. Fourth Quarter will get right back on track.